I don’t want this to get lost in the sea of breathless reactions to the sweater porn on display in Knives Out: Chris Evans, the pristine vision of masculine and moral goodness as Captain America, is playing the hell out of a smug jerk while stealing Rian Johnson’s star-studded whodunnit. This should come as no surprise, of course. And it’s not just because he’s a trained actor and the job requires one to breathe life into whatever is scrawled onto the page. No, it’s because of his past work.
Prior to playing Steve Rogers, Evans leaned into playing bad boyfriend material roles that shared a smidgen of Ransom Drysdale’s penchant for being petty, conceited, smarmy, and maybe a little fundangerous. He did this most famously in the Fantastic Four films, most perfectly in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and in smaller doses in Not Another Teen Movie, Fierce People, and, to a faint extent, What’s Your Number (which, to be fair, came out a couple of months after Captain America: The First Avenger). He also brought a certain impishness to almost every other role.
There’s an implied ugliness that comes with any suggestion that Evans’ entrance into the Marvel Cinematic Universe saved him from a career that relied heavily on his ability to make the smirk work. There are enough zigs on his IMDB page to make that not explicitly true, but the reaction to Evans as Cap seemed to add definition and dimension to what people would let him play on a regular basis. And in his non-Cap roles over the last near-decade, we’ve seen a swing toward more complex characters. But also, toward better people. If you can discount the whole eating babies thing, Evans’ character in Snowpiercer is a dystopian-era resistance leader and reluctant hero. In Gifted, he’s a regular guy trying to give his exceptional niece a normal life. Before We Go (which Evans also directed) and Playing It Cool lean toward the romantic (a place Evans has gone before, but there seems to be more authenticity and weight now) and Red Sea Diving Resort sees Evans playing a character that is trying to stave off a humanitarian crisis. He’s an onscreen mega-mensch, now. Something that seems to jibe with his public persona and actions both socially conscious and charitable. But you can only play the hero so many times in a row, right? And Ransom Drysdale ain’t that.
As an adult male brat, Ransom’s sense of entitlement and superiority powers him. It gives him a glide that allows him to weave around responsibility, tamp down empathy, and craft angles that only point to his enrichment as he uses and vocally discounts his awful family. These traits all stand as firm evidence that Ransom would be a horrendous lay, but nevertheless, he’s salivatingly handsome and devilishly charming so vapors for everyone.
While Ransom is the exact opposite of what Evans’ has been playing for a good long while, it also seems like a lot of fun. Maybe that’s why it appealed to him, maybe it was the chance to work with Rian Johnson and the cast, maybe Chris Evans is a huge Murder She Wrote wonk and secret webmaster in charge of a Castle fanfic forum. Or maybe he was just in Boston for a few weeks. I don’t know, but the benefits of this choice are clear, both for Evans and Johnson.
It’s at this point that, if you have not yet seen Knives Out, I am compelled to warn you that you should stop reading this article.
Okay, so… the trailers for Knives Out bank on the appeal of seeing a well-attired Captain America weaponize cockiness.
See? That’s a bad boy tractor beam right there. Irresistible.
In the film, Ransom pays off the promise of ultra douchebaggery… until it seems like he’s not. And in that moment, Evans’ casting and Johnson’s genius become clear: because while minds are calculating on the who of the whodunnit all throughout, Ransom’s heel turn unturn feels ever so slightly legitimate, freeing him, momentarily, from suspicion. And that’s what these last eight years of nice guy roles and good guy tweets buy Evans: freedom.
Our assumption of a Chris Evans character’s good nature means he can play with that and shock us a little now with things like that third act heel turn return that culminates in a kind of spittle flying, vein pulsating rage that’s powered by a blend of white privilege, upper-class toxicity, and territorialism. From the possessor of America’s ass to America’s asshole in a few moves. It’s brilliant. Now Chris Evans is freed from the MCU and able to play anything he wants. I just hope he plays more villains and smug assholes.
1. Because he’s really good at it. Like shockingly good.
2. Because, while there’s a certain escapist value to seeing heroes at work (both super and otherwise), there’s a very different but similarly potent charge in seeing a well-played shithead get taken down a few pegs… or, at least, get spewed on, ruining his day and, at the very least, his fancy-ass sweater.